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Posts Tagged ‘Dear John’

“There’s a difference between drama and melodrama; evoking genuine emotion, or manipulating emotion. It’s a very fine eye-of-the-needle to thread. And it’s very rare that it works. That’s why I tend to dominate this particular genre. There is this fine line. And I do not verge into melodrama. It’s all drama. I try to generate authentic emotional power.”
Nicholas Sparks

Nicholas Sparks is on a roll. A new movie that he and is in theaters now made its money back in its first week and he has the number one slot on the New York Times best seller list for Paperback Mass-Market Fiction (and the #5 slot as well).

If you’re not a 12 years old girl you may not have read or seen The Last Song or Dear John, or be aware that  most of his stories are set in the Carolinas. But Sparks spent a good deal of his youth in the Midwest and an event that happened right here in Iowa helped give him a start as a writer.

Sparks was born in Nebraska, and lived for a time in Minnesota, and eventually landed in Indiana where he received a track scholarship to Notre Dame. While running in the Drake Relays in Des Moines, Iowa he was injured and this is what he wrote on his website:

I spent the summer icing my Achilles tendon. During those three months, in which I was instructed not to run at all, I moped around the house until my mom got tired of it.

“Don’t just pout,” she said, “Do something”

“What?” I asked, not bothering to hide my sulking.

“I don’t know. Write a book.”

I looked at her. “Okay,” I said.

He completed that first novel between his freshman and sophomore years but it didn’t get published.  A few years later he wrote another novel that also didn’t get published. He worked various jobs including waiting tables and wrote a third novel. The third time was a charm as The Notebook got him an advance of $1 million.

He since has had more than fifteen books published and, beginning with Message in a Bottle starring Kevin Costner and Robin Wright Penn, six of his novels have been made into movies. (I wonder if Sean Penn, Robin’s wife at the time, watched Message in a Bottle. And if so, did the words “authentic emotional power” come to his mind?)

Though often thought of and called a romance writer Sparks prefers to think of himself as a writer of tragic love stories. In a recent article in USA Today he stresses the differences. That’s the article that also created a little controversy when film critic Roger Ebert took Sparks to task for some of his comments about Cormac McCarthy, but he still gave the new Miley Cyrus movie two and a half stars.

And if you’re keeping score. put Sparks down as another writer who grew up poor (at least until his father finished his Ph.D.) and Catholic.

BTW—The Drake Relays (where Sparks hurt his Achilles tendon) are later this month and a big deal in these parts as it attracts some of the finest athletes in track in field including former and future Olympians.

Scott W. Smith

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When I was in high school there was a guy who was cut from a different mold and I always wondered what happened to him. I thought of him after seeing The Hurt Locker because to be on a bomb squad one has to come from a different mold.

Daws only weighed 135 pounds and he not only played football, he was a nose guard. (Not the place for little guys.) But he was tough. His helmet actually had the paint scratched off the front of it from hitting other helmets so hard. After one game which we lost we could hear him on the practice field in the dark hitting the blocking sled–which would not have the pads on it. Daws was a warrior and I’d be very surprised if he didn’t end up in the military.

One of the things I like best about The Hurt Locker is it isn’t about the war, but about the warrior. The kind of person that is more comfortable disarming a bomb than grocery shopping or updating his Facebook status.

Movies made in and around the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan (In the Valley of Elah, Rendition, Lions for Lambs, The Kingdom, Brothers , Redacted ,  A Mighty Heart, The Messenger) have one thing in common–they don’t find much of an audience. Unfortunately, The Hurt Locker joins the club.

Unfortunately, because it’s a great film. Time magazine called it “A near-perfect movie” and recently it tied Avatar with nine Academy Award nominations. Perhaps it will find a life on DVD.

While audiences have supported many films about war (including the Civil War, WWI, WWII, Korea, & Viet Nam) Iraq appears to be a different monster. I’m not sure why this is the case, but I can speculate. Time would seem to be the first factor. I seem to recall an interview where screenwriter Douglas Day Stewart said that one of the troubles with getting An Officer and a Gentleman made was the lingering effect of the Viet Nam War.

Keep in mind that An Officer and a Gentleman was not a movie about Viet Nam, just military centered. The movie got made and was a box office hit, but it came out in 1982–eight years after US involvement ended. Granted The Green Berets was released in 1968 (during the war in Viet Nam) but that was because it was a film John Wayne wanted to make. But generally, the war in Viet Nam was avoided by Hollywood at first.

Certainly, The Deer Hunter (1978) dealt with the lingering effects of returning home from Viet Nam, but that is still four years removed from the conflict.  Apocalypse Now is almost its own genre that transcended Viet Nam, but still didn’t come out until 1979.

I think Platoon was the first movie that was a hard look at Viet Nam that found an audience, but that was 1986– a full 12 years after the war.  Then Viet Nam was in vogue in Hollywood, Good Morning Viet Nam (1987), Full Metal Jacket. (1987) , The Hanoi Hilton (1987), Hamburger Hill (1987), Casualties of War (1989) and Born on the Fourth of July(1989).

So I think time is needed for audiences to be comfortable reflecting on Iraq. When I last checked, we were still in Iraq. We’re still in Afghanistan.  And I think we now realize we will always be in a war with terrorism.

The second reason I think audiences aren’t fond of movies about Iraq is the shear politics of the matter. It’s hard for the word propaganda not to come up. People generally don’t like to heavy-handed arguments from either side. (Though I should point out that that Michael Moore’s documnetary Fahrenheit 9/11 made $119 million domestic/$222 million worldwide (on a $6 million budget.)

And thirdly, movies are largely about entertainment. Definitions usually include the words amusement, diversion, and pleasure. That doesn’t mean we don’t make difficult films–just pointing out that it is hard for those films to find an audience no matter how well they are made. We’ll see how Buried does this spring (about a an American contractor in Iraq) –sounds like an interesting twist and was well-received at Sundance.

The Gulf War was short lives and out of that came Three Kings and Jarhead that did find audiences but the expenses were so high that the domestic box office was below their budgets. Courage Under Fire (1996) had a solid cast Denzel Washington, Meg Ryan, and a newcomer named Matt Damon and the budget was estimated to be below $50. million and made $60 million domestic and topped $100 million worldwide.

But with all those statistics there are said to be over  100 Iraq/Afghanistan-centered war movies in development.

How has Dear John been able to have a big box office run? I haven’t seen the film, but words that reviewers are fond of using are “syrupy,” “sentimental” and “schmaltzy.” Not the kind of film my high school friend Daws would be interested in seeing, but enough people were for it to double its money in just two weeks.

Related post: Screenwriting from Hell

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